By any objective measure, Steele’s dossier is a shoddy piece of work. Its stories are preposterous — the “pee tape,” the grandiose Trump–Russia espionage conspiracy, the closely coordinating Trump emissaries who turn out not even to know each other, the trips and meetings that never happened, the hub of conspiratorial activity that did not actually exist. Steele gets basic facts wrong. There are undated and misdated reports. The putative Russia expert repeatedly misspells the name of Alfa Bank (“Alpha”), which is among the country’s most important financial institutions. In the antithesis of good spycraft, Steele tried (unsuccessfully) to corroborate his sensational claims by using dodgy information pulled off the Internet, including posts by “random individuals” who were as unknown to Steele as most of Steele’s vaunted sources are unknown to everyone else. No wonder Steele’s former MI6 superior, Sir John Scarlett, scathingly assessed the dossier as falling woefully short of professional intelligence standards: The reports were “visibly” part of a “commercial” venture, unlikely ever to be corroborated, and patently suspect due to questions about who commissioned them and why they were generated.
Yet the Obama administration made the dossier the centerpiece of its Russia investigation.
The FBI eventually tried to corroborate Steele’s claims. The effort was ramped up only after the Obama administration — through the Justice Department and the bureau — peddled the dossier to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret tribunal established by Congress in the wake of the 1970s spy scandals to give Americans a modicum of due-process protection against national-security monitoring. Months after the FISA warrants were issued, enabling the bureau to monitor former Trump-campaign adviser Carter Page, then-director Comey sheepishly conceded to Judiciary Committee senators that investigators had not verified the allegations; they had relied on them because they had believed Steele. This despite the fact that Steele had not even pretended to be the actual source of the allegations. Essentially, he was an aggregator, a collector of rank rumor.